Literary Mixtape: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Here we feature an imagined music playlist inspired by a character from a work of fiction. Each month, a different work will be chosen based on topicality, commemorative celebration or whim, and will serve as the inspiration for our sonic excursion.

I’ve decided to feature Papa-Lo from Marlon James’ sprawling, gloriously visceral epic, A Brief History of Seven Killings, originally published in 2014. James uses the real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley during a “peace concert” in 1976 as a framing device to explore the drug trade, police corruption and political unrest in Jamaica, and the ways in which these elements reverberate across multiple decades, generations and countries. He writes dialogue beautifully, giving clear and distinctive voice to a staggering array of characters, and illustrates with finesse the ways in which this diverse collection of characters all play into the larger story. He also writes scenes of savage violence with a pronounced elegance.

history of the seven killingsPapa-Lo, don of the Copenhagen City section of West Kingston, is a friend of “The Singer”(as Marley is known in the book) as well as a ruthless enforcer of order in the ghetto. Violent yet reasoned, he balances the brutality that his position requires with an acute social and political awareness. During a stint in prison, he is able to broker a peace agreement with a warring Kingston faction. In addition to his savvy sense of diplomacy, Papa possesses the gift of gab and a magnetic, primal charisma. Here are some songs of his Jamaica.

Listen to some of the songs on this playlist.

My Conversation by The Uniques (1968) A big, big rocksteady tune that showcases Slim Smith’s lovely vocal presence. “All I need from you is a good conversation/ Because it gives me sweet inspiration”

The Way I Feel by Bob Andy (1969) Lord have mercy.

Better Must Come by Delroy Wilson (1970) A socially conscious roots tune that was appropriated by Michael Manley for his PNP election campaign. “I’ve been trying a long, long time, but I can’t make it/ No one to give me a helping hand, they only trying to keep me down”

Small Axe by Bob Marley and The Wailers (1973) Produced by the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry, this song took square aim at the powers-that- be in the Jamaican recording industry at the time. A call to arms of sorts, Marley’s aim was to orchestrate the “small axe” that would chop down the “big tree”.

Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear (1975) Winston Rodney brings the heat on this shot, referencing the Jamaican political leader who was instrumental in the founding of the Rastafarian movement, and who stands as the “prophet” in the Rastafari holy trinity.

War Ina Babylon by Max Romeo (1976) This tune gets at the rub between the rasta people and the Babylon system. “De dreadlocks man nuh like de baba man, no/ De police men nuh like de dreadlocks man”

Fade Away by Junior Byles (1976) Fireman time.

*Peace Treaty Special by Jacob Miller (1978) As referenced in the text during the period of Papa-Lo’s jail sentence, this track from “Killer” Miller celebrates the brokering of a peace treaty between the Copenhagen City and Eight Lanes factions of Kingston during a time of political unrest.

Uptown Top Ranking by Althea and Donna (1978) A massive tune in the dancehall to this day. Althea and Donna lay down the chat over a riddim first popularized by the great Alton Ellis. “Nah pop no style, a strictly roots”

Soon Forward by Gregory Isaacs (1979) The “Cool Ruler” shifts into full seduction mode on this cut. “Turn your lamps down low now/ ‘Cause we ain’t gonna linger no more”

*Track not available on Spotify

Greg is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in New York city. He is currently at work on a short story collection, as well as a feature film script.